MADISON, Wis. — Devastated doesn’t begin to express how former Wisconsin safety Dezmen Southward felt when he was informed just hours before participating in the NFL Combine that he had not been medically cleared to perform.
Under somewhat mysterious circumstances, Southward learned his X-rays had been red flagged because of a fracture in his fifth cervical vertebrae. The only problem was he felt fine and had never suffered a neck injury to his knowledge.
But rules were rules, and Southward was ruled out of action, which left him equal parts fuming and frustrated.
"I cried," Southward said. "Bawled my eyes out."
Southward said he never found out exactly who flagged his test results. But Dr. Bob Watkins, who has performed neck procedures on Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, ultimately cleared him of any neck damage once the combine completed.
The mix-up two weeks ago provided Southward with all the spark he needed when granted a second opportunity to make a first impression.
Southward was the star of the show during Wisconsin’s annual pro timing day workouts held Wednesday inside the McClain Center. He ran an unofficial 40-yard dash time of 4.35 seconds and recorded a 42-inch vertical jump.
As a means of comparison, only one player at the combine, former Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, recorded a 42-inch vertical leap. The best mark registered by a safety at the combine was 38 inches, by Utah State’s Mo Alexander and Florida State’s Terrence Brooks. And only three players ran a 40 faster than 4.35.
In other words, Southward stated his case as a viable NFL player loud and clear.
"I think there was a lot of unanswered questions," Southward said. "How fast is he? How explosive is he? Can he go up and get the ball? I think a lot of those questions I was able to answer."
This year’s pro day did not feature the same type of marquee names and compelling storylines as the past two years at Wisconsin. In 2012, Russell Wilson completed 59 of 63 pass attempts and proved that he could make any type of throw necessary to be a standout NFL quarterback. In 2013, one-time Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball lowered his 40-yard dash time by two-tenths of a second to 4.46, which ensured him a higher draft slot at running back.
Former Badgers safety Dezmen Southward tests out in the vertical leap at Wednesday’s Wisconsin pro day.
Even among players at Wednesday’s pro day, Southward was not initially considered the biggest attraction. Linebacker Chris Borland, offensive lineman Ryan Groy, wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and running back James White all could be selected higher when the NFL Draft arrives in May. But Southward, a 6-foot-1, 211-pounder, immediately made his presence felt with a blazing-fast 40 time. He said scouts told him he ran anywhere from 4.31 to 4.38 seconds.
"I’ve heard numbers as slow as 4.55 projected for me to run," Southward said. "I was excited to destroy that number. I definitely did that. Hopefully the eyes that were already on me opened up a little bit more. The ones that weren’t, they saw something. So I’m excited about that."
He also reached 42 inches on the vertical leap during his second and final attempt, clipping the highest prong and drawing applause from former Badgers teammates. Borland measured the second-highest vertical among Wisconsin’s contingent at 35 inches.
White, who was a high school teammate with Southward at powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said Southward’s numbers didn’t surprise him in the least.
"I was expecting him to do it," White said. "He’s a guy that’s freakishly athletic. I saw him when he first stepped out on the football field and do the little Nike Sparq Combine and do better than everybody that was training all year round for it. He’s freakishly athletic. I think he’ll be a great player in the NFL."
Added Borland: "I’ve seen that for years now. That’s Dez. I think what he really helped himself in was the drills. That 40 and the vert translated into things that actually matter on the football field. I’m really excited for Dez."
Southward could be appealing to NFL teams because of his versatility, experience and dependability. During the Senior Bowl in January, he played safety, cornerback and in the nickel spot as a corner. In his senior season at Wisconsin, Southward ranked fifth on the team in total tackles (40) and had six pass deflections and an interception. He played in a school-record 54 career games with 30 starts.
"Dez is a very, very athletic young man and he’s a very smart young man," Badgers coach Gary Andersen said. "I’m proud of him, especially with the setback he had at the combine and wasn’t able to compete there. I would love to have seen him compete on that stage with those kids, but that opportunity wasn’t presented to him. He handled it well, just like he always has. He didn’t bat an eye. I would not say I’m surprised. I think Dez has a future in the NFL, just like many of those kids that worked out today."
Southward acknowledged he had no idea exactly where a team might want to draft him, though projections before Wednesday listed him as a potential late-round selection. After Wednesday, however, one thing became quite clear.
"I think it’s a lot of buzz growing," Southward said, "and who knows where we’ll go from there?"